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Jim Ottewill’s look into urban rave culture defies expectation

Glasgow has a rich rave culture that has developed over decades

SCOTLAND has always loved a party.

Indeed, our proclivity for drinking and celebration somewhat defines us as a nation. Every New Year at the stroke of midnight millions of people across the world find themselves singing a song in a language they don’t speak purely because its essence befits the occasion. Auld Lang Syne, for better or worse, gives the world the impression that we are a people of raucous spirit whose parties continue into the wee hours.

Jim Ottewill’s new book – Out of Space: How UK Cities Shaped Rave Culture – proves this to be true. Although, not in the way that many people might expect.

Because while Scotland might deem it fitting to teach schoolchildren the in’s and out’s of ceilidh dancing every year, the fact is that nowadays most young people find themselves dancing in more raves than reels. As Ottewill writes about Glasgow in the book’s opening chapter, the city “enjoys notoriety as an epicentre of nightlife which only a few can rival”.

“There’s definitely an intrinsic lack of restraint towards going out which is different to somewhere like London.” said Ottewill.

His book charts how clubbing culture has tended to spring from within the UK’s industrial cities: Manchester, Leeds, and, of course, Glasgow.

Jim said: “In the past, Glasgow was an epicentre of the industrial revolution and the ‘work-hard-play-hard’ mentality associated with the city stemmed from this period of economic expansion and this need for people to let off some serious steam outside their working hours.

“When industrial decline set in in terms of unemployment, poverty and economic hardship, then nightlife in its myriad forms also offered a space to escape to and a sense of community that was wrecked by the collapse of work.”

Nowhere else is the spirit of Glasgow’s indefatigable nightlife embodied more than Sub Club.

Tucked into a basement off Jamaica Street, Sub Club can hold only around 400 people at full capacity. But its legend far exceeds its size.

Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald reportedly played there back when it was known as Le Cave and Lulu would grace its low-ceilings in the late 60s when Glasgow’s underground rock scene was blossoming.

But since the late 1980’s Sub Club has been the focal point of Scotland’s dance music scene, making a name for itself not just in Glasgow but globally.

Domenic Capello is one half of the duo at the helm of the world’s longest running weekly house music residency run out of Sub Club: Subculture.

Both him and his Subculture partner Harri Hannigan are enormously respected within the underground dance music scene, which has led them to guest slots throughout the globe.

Over the years they’ve played some of the world’s most prestigious clubs from Paris to Moscow.

But the pair have always been sustained by their crowds in Glasgow; and they, in turn, have kept innovating to keep them coming back.

“I’ve been doing Subculture for 28 years, now.” said Domenic. “You get people coming down when they’re eighteen and they’ll come pretty much every week until they finish uni.

“And then they’ll come every second week when they get jobs. Then they’ll come less and less as they get a mortgage, have kids.

“But on the big nights you get this mix of everyone: young people who’ve never been to Sub Club before mixing with folk who have been coming for ten or twenty years.

“And the key to that is that we always play new music. That’s what keeps people interested.”

However, Ottewill’s book isn’t just about music. It’s also about the forces that allow nightclubs to survive or perish.

So many of history’s greatest clubs have been transient: the Hacienda in Manchester, Studio 54 in New York, and even The Arches in Glasgow.

And the forces that caused their demise have so rarely been related to the music.

The Arches closed its doors in 2015 after Glasgow City Council revoked the venue’s late licence after complaints from the police. Nowadays the venue is most often used as a street food market but it is also available for hire - though not, its owners insist, for use as a nightclub.

Instead, it is advertised as a space for “large scale brand activations and launch events to corporate dinners and film screenings”.

Last month, after footage showing attendees of The Organisation for Human Brain Mapping conference partying in The Arches was put online, a petition to reinstate the venue’s late licence received 25,000 signatures.

Yet despite the clear hunger for these spaces, forces well beyond clubbers control can often spell the end for even the most adored of venues.

As Ottewill writes in the book: “In the ten years from 2005, the number of nightclubs in the UK halved, falling from 3,144 to 1,733”

But, he insists, it isn’t all doom and gloom.

“One of the main areas for optimism is this movement to take ownership of space - those behind the Sub Club and SWG3 have done it to great effect - and there’s this grassroots swell with different collectives choosing to launch community shares and sustain themselves this way.” he said.

“Spaces like SWG3 are exciting as they look to create an entire ecosystem around the venue - and the dancefloor is just part of this.”

But it isn’t just Glasgow and Edinburgh where Scotland’s club culture thrives.

Perth isn’t a city most people would believe was capable of spawning some of the country’s best emerging talent in dance music. Yet that’s exactly what it’s done.

Mitch Hunter and Max Spittal were teenagers when they put on their first club night in a battered old pub on Perth’s Victoria Street. Now, more than ten years on, they run one of the biggest independent dance music labels in the UK: Craigie Knowes.

“After doing a few nights in a pub we were asked by one of Perth’s main club promoters if we wanted to do a night at The Ice Factory, which used to be a hotspot for dance music during the 90s.” said Mitch.

“At that time only sporadic parties were happening there and nothing very good. It ended up being a bit of a perfect storm, really.

“We’d started collecting records and the people in Perth had been starved of decent dance music for so long that we had a captive audience.”

Since then Mitch and Max have played all across Europe and helped spawn a thriving scene in their home city. However, the influence of Sub Club is never far away in Scotland.

“We learnt everything we know from going to Sub Club on a Saturday night and watching Harri and Dominic warm up” Mitch added.

“We were regulars there and we would drive through from Perth at ten at night to get there for opening and be the last people to leave. We did that religiously for years.”

Ottewill’s book isn’t a nostalgia trip. It concerns itself with the living, breathing culture of today: whether that’s old-timers like Harri and Domenic or newcomers making a name for themselves.

“My book isn’t an epitaph for nightclubs.” said Ottewill. “As we’ve seen from the way electronic music has entered the metaverse or embraced streaming and virtual events, it’s very much future facing.

“No one quite knows how cities will be in the future due to all the uncertainties raised by the pandemic. But the dance music community has always responded to challenges by seeing them as opportunities”

Rave culture is semi-hidden out of both necessity and purity. Most people don’t want to be photographed for Instagram at 4am in the bowels of a basement club.

But Ottewill’s book sheds light on a scene that, for its popularity, is seldom discussed by the population at large.

Scotland has always loved a party and, despite the challenges nightclub culture faces, that doesn’t look like something that’s going to change anytime soon. Jim Ottewill will launch his book at a free event at Glasgow’s Rubadub record shop on July 14.

“The music’s always moving forward. You get people coming down when they’re 18, they’ve just started uni, and they’ll come pretty much every week until they finish uni. And then they’ll come every other week when they start getting jobs and stuff. And then they’ll come less and less as they get the mortgage, as they get the house. All those responsibilities that happen as you get older. But there’s a reinforcement of young people coming through constantly and they mingle with the older crowd and it kind of balances out. On the big birthday nights you get people who’ve been going for ten or twenty years. It keeps the ball rolling and keeps the crowd fresh.

And the music constantly changes, it’s constantly moving forward.

I think you find that in a lot of places where there’s a culture of people working hard all week and they need a release. And you get that in a lot of cities. Liverpool, Manchester’s the same. Glasgow, obviously. Even Edinburgh’s become more like that where people do what they do during the week - whether it’s their jobs or university degrees or whatever - and then their release is the weekend. So, what do they do? They go to the pub. Some people like going for a meal or to the cinema. But some people like going to dance. People have always done it. Glasgow’s always been known for having dancehalls, like the Barrowlands. Back in the 50s and stuff people did that at the weekend: they danced to American jazz music, or jive, or rock and roll. And now it’s dance music. It’s house, it’s techno, it’s electro.

People always need a release and I think dancing and socialising with other people who like similar kinds of music is part of that legacy.

Covid was an aberration.

FACT Magazine once said that the Scots “do raving better than anyone” - and if you watch this 2015 video of the Slam tent at T in the Park going from empty to full in 30 seconds, it’s hard to argue with. The energy is unreal.

Why does the populace have this passion for going out? One of my interviewees for my book, DJ and producer Neil Landstrumm, described how “the Celtic aspect is a natural party base” and there’s definitely an intrinsic lack of restraint towards going out which is different to somewhere like London.

Another interviewee, academic, author and rave Sarah Lowndes said you can trace this back to the “dramatic periods of economic boom and bust” surrounding the city’s industry. In the past, Glasgow was an epicentre of the industrial revolution, and was dubbed “the engine room” of the empire due to its huge shipbuilding, steel and heavy engineering output. The ‘work-hard-play-hard’ mentality associated with the city stemmed from this period of economic expansion and this need for people to let off some serious steam outside their working hours. When industrial decline set in in terms of unemployment, poverty and economic hardship, then nightlife in its myriad forms also offered a space to escape to and a sense of community that was wrecked by the collapse of work.

This isn’t unique to Glasgow - you can see similar patterns in other cities across the north where industry really suffered - so Manchester, Liverpool, Blackburn and Sheffield. This sudden vacuum and glut of derelict properties created these amazing opportunities for entrepreneurial collectives and savvy individuals to take advantage of and reclaim these spaces. In terms of nightlife’s ongoing popularity, there are key players whose love and passion for dance music has helped sustain and evolve the scene in Glasgow. Slam and Soma, then obviously Sub Club and their residents Dom and Harri alongside owner Mike Grieve, as well as DJs like Optimo and Jasper James, labels like Lucky Me and Numbers. The fact that these world class DJs, producers and promoters have stayed tight with the city has helped establish and push its reputation. Then DJs like Nightwave and Claude Young moving to Glasgow enhances this further as well as creating these global networks. Then you’ve got institutions like Rubadub with a loyal community surrounding it.

It all feeds into itself, creating close connections and a loyalty between clubs and their crowds as well as meaning there’s a depth to the scene that also goes beyond headline techno and house it’s known for. For example, Rebecca Vasmant is a really exciting artist and DJ whose sounds incorporate jazz and funk influences… And finally, what does the future look like for nightclub culture in Scotland and the UK more broadly? How has the pandemic and internet culture changed it?

It’s arguably more challenging than ever for nightlife to survive and thrive. There are plenty of hurdles - Covid is an obvious one and restrictions appear to have been tighter in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK. Then there are the ways in which city centres and the property within them is managed. For developers, many see flats or commercial enterprises as a more lucrative option than a nightclub - plus there’s much made of the supposed ‘nuisance’ of nightclubs and the way entertainment has been exploded and diversified by digital. Different generations will always want to go out and dance - it’s something we’ve been up to since we were all barreling around in caves dealing with mammoths thousands of years ago - but whether that’s in clubs is another question.

In the book, one of the main areas for optimism is this movement to take ownership of space - those behind the Sub Club and SWG3 have done it to great effect - and there’s this grassroots swell with different collectives choosing to launch community shares and sustain themselves this way. Spaces like SWG3 are exciting as they look to create an entire ecosystem around the venue - and the dancefloor is just part of this.

My book isn’t an epitaph for nightclubs - or an exercise in nostalgia harking back to the ‘glory days’ of acid house. As we’ve seen from the way electronic music has entered the metaverse or embraced streaming and virtual events, it’s very much future facing and I hope the achievements, innovation and ingenuity of those I’ve spoken to comes through. No one quite knows how cities will be in the future due to all the uncertainties raised by the pandemic. But the dance music community has always responded to challenges by seeing them as opportunities. Now we’re hopefully coming out the other side of Covid, I think it should continue to do so… And while in many minds this may conjour up images of ceilidhs It’s the kind of raucous national pastime befitting of a country Nightclubs aren’t meant to be talked about too much.

No Presents Please.

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